IN THE KITCHEN Taiji Mineo has known Manabu Ito, co-owner and head chef at Migaku Noodle House in Brookline, for 20 years. Ito came to work for Mineo at Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge. Five years ago, they opened Ittoku in Brighton. More recently, another restaurant concept — one with hometown appeal for Ito in particular — called out to them.
Ito grew up in Kyushu, the southwesternmost of Japan’s four main islands, where the noodle dish champon originated. “Champon is a very close relative of ramen. The biggest difference is that it features a lot of seafood,” Mineo said. Ito “has been eating it since he was a kid, knows how it tastes, [and] always wanted to start a champon place.” In Japanese, he added, “mi” means flavor, “gaku” translates to learn or study, and Ito’s first name also contains the Japanese character for study.
THE LOCALE While Ito comes from Kyushu, Mineo hails from Yokohama, near Tokyo. “I’m a city boy,” he laughed. Coincidentally, the space in Brookline Village where they opened Migaku previously housed a Japanese restaurant named Yokohama. “I used to live in Brookline so I kind of knew the neighborhood. It’s a very nice town with a friendly feeling, so I thought this would be a nice place for a noodle shop,” he said.
The restaurant, on Washington Street close to Route 9, opened in May. The simple, serene dining room with 24 seats is decorated with eclectic artwork ranging from posters of classic rock icons to Boston’s sports teams. We visited on a quiet weekend afternoon toward the end of lunchtime and appreciated the staff’s attentiveness and graciousness throughout our meal.
ON THE MENU We’re here to try the champon. The Nagasaki champon ($12.50) is the standard, the hot, steaming bowl of chicken- and pork-based broth filled with stir-fried mixed vegetables, seafood, and crumbled pork. Want to kick it up a notch? Go for the kara goma champon ($14.50), which marries the above with spicy ground pork crowned with bright red strands of saffron and a spicy sesame-based broth. The presentation is stellar and it’s a knockout dish, the rich, flavorful broth enhancing but not overpowering the plentiful shrimp, squid, sprouts, cabbage, and other seafood and vegetables. Wavy, springy noodles are eminently slurp-able with a nice amount of chew. This is a dish I kept thinking about well after leaving the restaurant, and there are other champon varieties as well.
For those inclined toward more familiar ramen, the yakibuta ($12.50) contains tender, thick-cut cha shu pork (braised pork belly) and an onsen egg (the name refers to the word for a Japanese hot spring), soft-cooked with a runny yolk. Stamina ramen ($13.50) seasons pork with a sweet soy sauce, while tantanmen ($13.50) submerges spicy ground pork in a sesame-inflected broth. For those seeking something lighter, there’s also a vegetarian version ($13.50). These bowls are already nicely balanced, but diners are welcome to add toppings, from extra noodles ($1.80) to seasoned wood-ear mushrooms ($2), to mentai, or cod roe ($2.50).
Filled to the brim with noodles and soup, we missed the rice bowls during our visit, but options include cha shu pork and yu choy ($11.50) and curry ($11.50). There’s also a range of appetizers; according to manager Usanee Chaovatana, onigiri ($2.50) — Japanese rice balls filled with a choice of mentai or pickled takana greens — is especially popular. And by the way, the yuzu-flavored sauce on the table next to the shichimi powder was fantastic.
Eating at Migaku reminded me of the thrill of “discovering” a regional dish during travels in Japan — which means I’m looking forward to working through its full menu.
Migaku Noodle House, 238 Washington St., Brookline Village, 617-608-3141, migaku-noodle-house.business.site.Rachel Lebeaux can be reached at email@example.com.